In the early 1980s there was a short-lived review of modern poetry, The Present Tense, edited by Michael Abbott. The inside cover included a list of people to be thanked for help and advice and these included Neil Astley for issue 3 and Michael Schmidt for issue 4. Issue 2 contained poetry by Charles Tomlinson (‘A Defence of Poesie’) and issue 4 published his ‘Sonnet (after Mallarmé)’. Other poets who appeared in the four issues of this little Bristol-based magazine included C.H. Sisson, Anthony Rudolf, John Greening, Glen Cavaliero, Michael Schmidt and Martin Booth. In issue 3, Autumn 1982, I reviewed Tomlinson’s recently published collection The Flood and the following remarks are taken from that review. Whilst I may blush at some naïveties presented over thirty years ago I think that I still hold to the substance of what I wrote!
After referring to ‘Winter Encounters’, the poem featured in my first ‘blog’, I went on to look at Tomlinson’s questioning of the permanence of stone as his house in Ozleworth became flooded after constant heavy rain and the brook overflowing:
‘The close connection between the landscape and the people dwelling in it is emphasised by the civilised term ‘neighbourhood’ in ‘Winter Encounters’. In that poem there is a firm sense that the bodying-forth of the connections perceived within a landscape is linked to the constant values inherent within individual lives. However, in this latest collection I am impelled to recognise a new tone, a questioning sense that perhaps these objects seen are dissolving, no longer to be relied upon as constants. In ‘The Gate’ the poet’s eye is ‘teased; by a gate being placed on the edge of an unfenced field and the poet’s new eye melts a wall to nothing: a place ‘unspaced’ is, perhaps, in lacking its structure, non-existent. There is here a new way of seeing as the rigid becomes fluid and what is seen becomes almost dream-like:
‘…The mocked mind,
Busy with surroundings it can neither bound nor unbind,
Cedes to the eye the pleasure of passing
Where, between the gate’s five bars,
Perpetual seawaves play of innumerable grasses.’
Similarly the grass which appears ‘like scattered megaliths’ in ‘Hay’ dissolves into an atmosphere of scents:
‘A hedge of hay-bales to confuse the track
Of time, and out of which the smoking dews
Draw odours solid as the huge deception.’
The title poem appears near the end of the collection and the poet who wrote about ‘Stone Walls at Chew Magna’ opens now with
‘It was the night of the flood first took away
My trust in stone.’
The liquid element fills in spaces as opposed to delineating them and the poet vainly attempts to erect structures that will channel the water back to its origin as he ‘dragged / Sacks, full of a mush of soil / Dug in the rain, and bagged each threshold.’ However, naturally enough for this type of flood these measures are ineffectual and I recall D.H. Lawrence’s comment in ‘Love was once a little boy’:
‘The individual is like a deep pool, or tarn, in the mountains, fed from beneath by unseen springs, and having no obvious inlet or outlet.’
The flood in Tomlinson’s poem has ‘…no end to its sources and resources / To grow and to go wherever it would / Taking one with it. The welling up from the springs of imagination is not to be balked by sacks which are themselves filled with soil dug in the rain: here will be
‘…a swealing away
Past shape and self’.
When faced with the overwhelming scepticism concerning those meticulous details upon which the ordered mind has relied for so long then what has been said by others is something to be preserved. Carrying objects to the floor above the poet puts a stair ‘Between the world of books and water.’ In a confrontation between imaginative inspiration and the landmarks which give it shape ‘Water had tried stone and found it wanting’.
However, as with the grass inside the fenceless field the mind discovers new areas of contemplation: a reconciliation. The ‘vertigo of sunbeams’ reflected off the water onto the ceiling are, next morning, something to be praised. Perhaps stone was too unyielding for a poet taking stock of himself. Now no surface is safe from swaying and stone appears as ‘malleable as clay’. Within this Noah’s Ark there is a new morning and a new way of seeing, waiting patiently ‘upon the weather’s mercies.’
I apologise in advance for the incorrect left margin in some of the quotations: technical hitch!
Ian Brinton August 26th 2015